With all of the hype and hoopla over the summertime smash hit the Help, the many references to the old Robert E. Lee Hotel might set people to wondering about the place. Visitors to downtown Jackson might be forgiven for the assumption that the Robert E. Lee State Office Building had been built as such. It has, after all, been an office building since 1969, a time well beyond the memory of many Jacksonians. A quick study of the building should reveal it to even the most casual observer as a former hotel. The Robert E. Lee has even managed to receive a recent restoration, perhaps securing its place as an office building. I would prefer to see this grand old place returned to use as a hotel. It’s got the right bone structure! Its place in history is undeniable, though perhaps darker than many would like to believe.
The hotel was designed by Jackson architect Claude H. Lindsley in 1928 and the doors opened in 1930, possibly not the most propitious time to open a hotel anywhere in America. The throes of the Great Depression may have forced the mighty Edwards Hotel into bankruptcy, but the Robert E. Lee came through somehow. It was always a good hotel, though quite possibly never thought of as exactly the best hotel in town. Its location near the “New” State Capitol building would ensure it a steady patronage through the years.
The lobby is richly adorned with marble and handsome columns and the brass elevator doors are an exclamation of depression-era extravagance.
Sunday, July 6, 1964 was a pivotal day for the hotel. Its owners, the Gammill family of Hattiesburg, chose to close the doors of the hotel rather than admit African-American patrons in accordance with the new laws of the land. They shut the doors of the hotel, only to sneakily reopen the hotel again a few months later as a segregated “private club.” Even this mean-spirited ruse did not save the hotel (nor should it have) and the Gammill family sold the building to the state. Since 1969, it has been in use as the Robert E. Lee State Office Building. One wonders, though, why the name has not been changed. As much as I usually recommend retention of historic names on landmarks, renaming the building in this case would really hurt no one and would possibly go a long way in the direction of changing the image of Mississippi for a new generation.
The state has made noises about the possibility of selling the property to a developer willing to renovate the building, though their stance has changed with the winds of finance and politics. At present, the building remains in use and is not for sale. With all of the talk about a new convention hotel in downtown Jackson, wouldn’t it make sense to capitalize upon the already existing resources at hand? I myself have made the argument that a convention hotel is needed. Whether or not one is built, the conversion of the Robert E. Lee into a possible hotel/condominium or apartment combination might make sense. Legislators could buy an apartment right across the street from the State Capitol and visiting lobbyists could stay in the same building! What’s not to like here- at least if you’re a lobbyist! The central issue here is that the building, though occupied and cared for, is not really meeting its full potential as a living and breathing part of downtown Jackson. Its handsome public spaces are in relatively good condition and could be enjoyed by the public once again with the right configuration of public and private uses for the building. This argument brings us full circle to the point that the state seems reluctant to sell the building at this time. The possibility that a new hotel will be built at the convention center and another Westin hotel recently proposed for a site on Tombigbee Street near the Thalia Mara Hall make the reversion of the Robert E. Lee to hotel use even more remote. Nonetheless, it’s something to ponder anew. Instead of building new buildings, why not make better use of the ones we already have?